Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Catch 22, Or 23, Or Whatever It Takes

If you follow the news at all, you may have heard that Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) was recently diagnosed with brain cancer (specifically, glioma). So what, you may be asking yourself, does that have to do with anything, let alone the war on drugs? The answer is simple: It has long been known that cannabis may have anti-cancer properties. I say “may have,” because at this point there just hasn’t been enough serious research done to make any definitive claims about the medicinal properties of marijuana with respect to cancer treatment.

And when I say that marijuana’s potential as a cancer treatment has been known for a long time, I mean over 30 years. Maybe not so long relative to the age of the universe, but an eternity when it comes to cancer research. In fact, the first modern study that showed cannabis may have potential as an anti-cancer treatment was commissioned by none other than the U.S. government in 1974. One of the major findings of this reputable study was that THC, one of the psychoactive compounds in marijuana, “slowed the growth of lung cancers, breast cancers and a virus-induced leukemia in laboratory mice, and prolonged their lives by as much as 36 percent.” Unfortunately, just like they did with other government-funded studies of marijuana that reported results in conflict with the “official government position,” our government buried the study and would not fund additional research. In fact, they did such a good job that these results were not known until 1997, and it is virtually impossible to find a copy of the original report.

Just so you don’t get the wrong idea about the U.S. government, they later funded another major study in the mid-1990s (it only took them 20 years). The results were similar, showing THC provided protection from malignant tumors. And the response of the government was similar; virtually no one heard about these results either. Got the right idea about the government now?

And therein lies the Catch 22: Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, which by definition means that it has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” And since it has no medicinal value, the government is well within its “rights” to restrict medical research into its therapeutic uses. Because there are none. Because it’s a Schedule I substance.

Of course reclassifying marijuana requires scientific evidence of its medicinal value. Which becomes a tad difficult when research is not allowed. Apparently the fact that a major medical group, the American College of Physicians, endorses the medicinal use of marijuana is not relevant. Nor are the testimonies of thousands of legal medical marijuana users and their prescribing physicians. More research is clearly needed, but research is not allowed. This sort of circular reasoning just gives me a headache. Maybe I should move to California and get a prescription.

So once again we see that our government, in claiming to protect us from ourselves, will do anything it takes to keep marijuana out of our hands. But what about protecting us from cancer? Granted, that is not mandated in our Constitution any more than protecting us from ourselves is, but the government has to have its priorities. It can only do so many unconstitutional things at one time. Allowing people to be treated with a medicinal herb that anybody can grow only benefits those particular individuals who are treated. It doesn’t make anybody (e.g., pharmaceutical companies) tons of money. And I think it’s obvious where our government’s priorities lie.

Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that marijuana is some kind of miracle drug. I’m no physician, and I have no idea what role, if any, marijuana should play in the treatment of cancer. Or any other disease for that matter. But then neither does anybody else. And that’s my point. Marijuana very well could be a miracle drug with a wide variety of therapeutic uses. But with the situation as it is in the United States today, with a government that cares more about money and special interests than about the health and liberty of its citizens, we can never really know for sure.

Oh well, at least I can appreciate the irony of a proponent of the war on drugs dying from a disease for which a cure might already exist, if not for the war on drugs. (Maybe someone could put the senator in touch with Rick Simpson—I think there would also be some irony in the senator having to go to a foreign country for his treatment.)

So as not to end this piece on such a negative note, not all countries have followed our lead in banning medical marijuana research. Over the last ten years, researchers in Spain, Italy, and Germany have shown that cannabis can stop or slow the growth of a variety of cancers, including cancers of the prostate, breast, lung, pancreas, and brain. In fact a human clinical trial recently showed some very positive results with gliomas. Irony indeed.

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